Osama bin Laden, Pulp Vigilante

By D. Harlan WilsonDecember 4, 2012

Osama by Lavie Tidhar

2012 HAS BEEN a good year for Lavie Tidhar. Not only did he win the British Fantasy Award for his “guns and sorcery” novella “Gorel & the Pot-Bellied God,” he also won the World Fantasy Award for Osama, an alternate-history novel, beating out Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. These are the first major awards the author has received, although, over the past decade, he hasn’t been a stranger to award committees for his short fiction, novels, and blogs. Until now, he is perhaps best known for “The Bookman Histories,” a trilogy of steampunk novels that include The Bookman, Camera Obscura, and The Great Game, all of which were widely acclaimed. But Osama has ushered Tidhar into the limelight.

Osama was originally printed by PS Publishing, one of the UK’s strongest independent genre presses, and then picked up by Solaris books, which is distributed by Simon & Schuster in the US and the UK. In both cases, the novel was publicized as brainwarp fantastika à la Philip K. Dick and hailed as such by The Financial Times and The Guardian. Osama does in fact engage an abundance of Phildickean themes, tropes, and legerdemain, drawing most heavily on the worldplay, meta-devices, revisionist history, and author-as-god mystique of The Man in the High Castle. A lot of novels have attempted to capture a similar PKDness. Sometimes they work as an ode to the legendary SF author while trying to emulate Dick’s idiosyncratic depictions of characters and causalities, the way he splices together opposing plotlines and punctuates key narrative/ontological ambiguities. Infrequently, however, do they manage to embody a compelling sense of genuine PKDness, some of which is premised upon narrative failure.

It’s well known that Dick really wanted to write “literary” fiction and, above all, achieve mainstream success. He wrote over ten non-SF novels in an attempt to climb out of the gutters of pulp fiction and become a “real” writer. Only one of these, Confessions of a Crap Artist, was published during his lifetime. Part of the problem was Dick’s prose. Chronically strapped for cash, he tended to write at lightning speed, completing entire books in a matter of days and attending to concepts more than things like language and characterization. But even when he “took his time” (a month or two for a book, still rather fast and furious), his writing almost always favored ideas over plot, story, social and emotional resonance, etc. — at least according to mainstream standards. More importantly, many of his novels get bogged down in loose ends and weird departures, violating formulae that literary fiction deeply cherishes.

I want to make the bold suggestion that Osama is the narrative symphony Philip K. Dick wished he could have composed. Not only is it beautifully written, it is expertly crafted and, for me, functions as a commentary on Dick’s inimitable narrative of failure as well as a broader ontology of failure that recurrently plagues the human experience. Osama falls into the arena of SF and fantasy. But the genre elements are soft. The novel might just as easily be the mainstream effort of a “serious literary writer” — what Dick yearned for, and what Tidhar is. Whether he wanted to or not, Tidhar has effectively out-PKDed PKD.

Osama channels the half-life of UBIK and the Ding an sich of Time Out of Joint, but again, it shares the most intimacy with The Man in the High Castle, which coincidentally garnered Dick his first major award, the Hugo, in 1963. High Castle imagines an alternate history in which the Axis defeats the Allies in World War II, resulting in a global totalitarian state. What brings together the novel’s sundry characters and plotlines is a mysterious author, Hawthorne Abendsen, who has written a popular book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a story-within-the-story about a world where the Axis loses the war. It is not the actual world, but Grasshopper uses the Allies’ victory as a starting point for another evolving fiction, one that is not without its problems but is a better alternative than rule by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. The book incites a metaphysical doubt in some characters, especially Julianna, who goes on a quest to find Abdensen and uncover the truth. As with many of Dick’s novels and stories, we end in a state of limbo, on the threshold of implosion, unsure of what is real and what is fantasy.

Osama deploys the same general framework as The Man in the High Castle, only Tidhar’s scope isn’t as sprawling; he attends to ambiance, setting, mood, and tone more than the development and unfolding of multiple narrative threads and characters. Additionally, instead of WWII, Tidhar uses 9/11 and the specter of terrorism as the primary source of conflict and contention. The lone protagonist, Joe (only Joe), is a private detective operating out of Ventiane, the capital of Laos. He’s not particularly good at his job and doesn’t get much work. He likes to read trashy pulp fiction, namely the Osama bin Laden: Vigilante series by Mike Longshott. “The books [in the series] did not seem particularly conducive for airplane flights. They were full of exploding planes, exploding buildings, exploding trains, exploding people. They read like the lab reports of a morgue, full of facts and figures all concerned with death.” And the (anti)hero of the books never gets caught; like a magician or trickster, “Now you see him, now you don’t.” Short, almost clinical descriptions of terrorist events that are presumably excerpts from the series appear throughout Osama. These are not coincidental per se, but at the same time, there is no visible context for them. It is as if the excerpts follow or track Joe as he moves through the convolutions of the novel from beginning to end.

 Osama is a stock noir tale. Hyperattentive to minor details, Tidhar focuses on atmosphere and shadowplay (literal and figurative) as his protagonist goes on a journey that is at once a descent into the urban labyrinth (mainly Paris and London) and into his own unstable psyche. Joe is contracted by a mysterious woman (possibly a femme fatale, possibly a femme docile) to find Mike Longshott for no particular reason. She gives him a credit card, though, so despite his reservations, he takes the case. He goes to Paris to visit “The Greek” — a.k.a. “Papa D,” a.k.a. Daniel Papadopoulos, the editor-in-chief of Longshott’s publisher, Medusa Press. But he’s never met Longshott. “I never have any contact with writers,” says Papadopoulos. “If I do, they just keep pestering me about getting paid.... Every six months or so, I get a new manuscript in the mail. More explosions, collapsing buildings, crashed planes, dead people. [Longshott] has a busy imagination.”

Joe gets an address that brings him to London, but Longshott continues to elude him as the contours of Joe’s reality unbuckle. He begins to see things and people that may or may not be there, such as the nameless woman who hired him, repeatedly fading in and out of clarity like a ghost. He is also pursued and roughed up by a recurrent group of g-men that belong to the “Clear and Present Danger” committee, reminiscent of black helicopters and Area 51. Their motives are nebulous; all we know is that they want Joe to stop looking for Longshott because doing so, according to the resolute “man with the grey hair,” will “open a door that we would, very much, like to keep closed” (151). There is talk of “refugees” and “fuzzy-wuzzies.” We don’t know what or who they are either, but it is insinuated that Joe himself has become one.

Eventually the object of Joe’s detective work shifts. Asked who he is looking for, Joe replies: “‘I’m looking for...’ he said, and then fell quiet, and stirred sugar and cream into the coffee, and took a sip; it seemed to set his brain on fire. ‘Osama bin Laden,’ he said, wonderingly.” Readers, too, stagger on in wonderment as Joe’s world continues to implode and he ends up, hilariously and yet gravely, at OsamaCon, a writing convention for fans of Longshott’s books complete with “panels, lectures, family entertainment, dealer tables, art expo and costume competition!” as well as “[a]n all-you-can-eat B.B.Q. following the parade on Sunday!”

In both Joe’s world and the world of Osama bin Laden: Vigilante, Tidhar mixes historical fact and fiction to varying degrees, although the novels-within-the-novel are closer to our own reality, in some cases mirroring actual terrorist events, whereas terrorism in Joe’s world is nearly inconceivable. “To think of planes crashing into impossibly-tall towers, of bombs taking out eyes and teeth and fingers, of a silent, secret war he didn’t understand, was to think of fiction, a cheap paperback thriller with a lurid cover. There was — there could be — nothing real about such things.” This is as close as Tidhar gets to what might be a thesis in the novel, the central question being: How do we negotiate and process, as individuals and communities, the spectacle of violence and death? The answer is, we don’t. Or, if we do, only within a schizophrenic register. Joe’s search for Longshott/bin Laden is thus an effort to make sense out of something that ultimately can’t be rendered sensible, not in any reality.

While Joe never finds bin Laden, he does find Longshott in a sort of liminal or ethereal place, an extradimensional matrix that reminds me of Twin Peaks’ Black/White Lodge. The scene recalls the conclusion of The Man in the High Caste in which Julianna finally meets Abdensen and learns “the truth.” In Osama, we learn that Mike Longshott, whose name really isn’t Mike Longshott (although it is Mike), is an opium addict with a connection to the woman who hired Joe, but only a peripheral connection. Like all of the characters in the novel, her identity and purpose remain obscure, but it is suggested in an earlier chapter that “fuzzy-wuzzies” like her were victims of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, and now they’re trapped in some kind of half-life, innocent victims banished to an uncanny oubliette by the evils of the human condition. Mike’s recurrent encounters with the woman enchanted him and, when she was gone, he experienced a powerful sense of absence and loss. He turned to opium, which gave him the idea for Osama bin Laden: Vigilante. “I smoked more pipes,” Mike tells Joe, “but they didn’t bring me relief. Instead, I began to imagine the world she must have come from. Details of it would come, unbidden, into my mind when I was in stupor. They came to me haltingly, at first. Dates, numbers. Headlines.... Do you know what a journalist is? Someone who hasn’t written a novel yet. I couldn’t write it in a newspaper. For a time, I didn’t need to write it at all.” The visions continued to harrow Mike, however, as did an enigmatic character. “‘When I close my eyes I see him, but always in the distance, like a cowled figure with clear cold eyes that are indifferent to me.’ Joe said — whispered — ‘Osama’.”

Tidhar suggests that Longshott, like everyone and everything in Osama, may be a figment of Joe’s drug-induced nightmare. Joe himself may or may not have been a terrorist victim. But ambiguity is the rub. Terminal identity and culture demands ambiguity, as Joe asserts: “How do you know what’s real? All of us, imagining lives like something out of a screen.” It is not just violence that concerns Tidhar, then, but the ways in which violence is mediatized and mediated, a process that, as Frankfurt School partisans might say, renders real life a movie. And not just terrorist violence, but responses to terrorist violence, as demonstrated by a scene that briefly situates Joe in Kabul during what is likely a US retaliatory bombing. Tidhar thus underscores the fundamental complications of terrorism and ultimately human aggression and (self-)destruction. It is analogous to what Dick does in The Man in the High Castle, Nazism and Fascism being products of the same soulless nihilism as any extremist militant faction. In this way, Tidhar both comments on Dick’s project and updates it, extending it into a future that is both familiar and alien.

In the final pages of Osama, Joe meets a woman — maybe the one from before, maybe not — who knows everything about him, all of the minutiae that together fabricate his identity. She tells him that he has “to choose what to be. When you’ve been stripped of everything: a name, a face, a love — you could be anything. You could even choose to be yourself.” Politics aside, this is precisely what Osama does: strips Joe of his identity and his reality so that he may build a new, ideally better selfhood. As the epilogue shows us, he chooses to return to the beauty of Vientiane, “where nothing happened and it was always warm.” Removed from the horrors of the “real world(s),” Joe smokes less, drinks less, and does what he can to enjoy a decidedly absurdist but worthwhile existence.

For the record, I think Philip K. Dick gets a bad rap. His prose, for instance, isn’t as bad as many critics claim, particularly in The Man in the High Castle, which has him working at the top of form. Nor was Dick a mere idea-machine. In some of his stories and novels, characters are meticulously rounded, plots skillfully unfolded and tied together. Alas, Dick didn’t create narratives that were works of art.

Osama is a work of art. And Tidhar is a word-painter, constructing vibrant and poetic landscapes of narrative in spite of the novel’s dark and brooding subject matter. Too often, I am surprised by works that win the World Fantasy Award, among others in the speculative genres (none more so than the Bram Stoker Award). Sometimes the quality of winners doesn’t hold up and their nominations seem to be a matter of sheer star power or nepotism. In this case, I’m happy to say, the judges got it dead right.

LARB Contributor

D. Harlan Wilson is a professor of English at Wright State University–Lake Campus, the reviews editor of Extrapolation, and the editor-in-chief of Anti-Oedipus Press. He is the author of over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, including scholarly monographs on the life and work of J. G. Ballard (University of Illinois Press), Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (Auteur Publishing), and Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit Wilson online at dharlanwilson.com.


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